Hippo Manchester
September 1, 2005

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The Aristocrats (NR)
by Amy Diaz

Dozens of comedians come together to make us laugh until our intestines hurt in the one-joke documentary The Aristocrats.

Normally, to describe a movie as “one-joke” is an insult but in the case of The Aristocrats it is a literal truth. The entire move is an examination and dissertation of one joke, a joke so beloved by comedians that it even has a name — “The Aristocrats.” A joke that was allegedly handed down from vaudeville times, “The Aristocrats” became, as some comedians in the movie describe it, a piece of comedy jazz that comics would play over and over, making it their own and putting it into their own style. Unlike most well-honed comedy bits, “The Aristocrats” is seldom repeated in front of a crowd of civilians. It’s saved for comedians, musicians and club owners, for the tables near the kitchen after the doors of a comedy club are closed.

The joke is essentially this: A guy goes into a talent agent’s office and says “Have I got an act for you!” (Or, he goes into the booking agent’s office and says “I have an act, it’s a fantastic act, I know you’re going to love it, it’s exactly what you’ve been looking for — can I have just a minute of your time?” The exact wordage changes a bit with each teller.) The agent says, “OK, fine, what’s the act?”

The description that follows varies depending on who’s telling the joke. The joke can be about a minute long, 30 minutes long or, according to legend, up to 90 minutes long. It is, essentially, a collection of the dirtiest, most vile, most depraved, most filthy disgusting acts committed (usually, in the joke’s most traditional versions) by a man, his wife, their son and daughter, a dog and possibly some grandparents on a stage. Vile. Dirty. Think of every four-letter word you won’t shout even in traffic behind closed car windows. Think of every nasty taunt ever hurled by a pack of ravenous 11-year-old boys. Think of every bathroom-level joke you’ve ever heard. Tame! Tame, I say in comparison to the illegal, immoral, inhumane, unspeakable events described as a part of this act.

“That’s quite an act,” the agent responds. “What’s it called?”

“The Aristocrats.”

It’s a line Gilbert Gottfried delivers victoriously. Paul Reiser says it matter-of-factly. Drew Carey does it with a flourish of his hands and two snaps. And Andy Richter, telling the joke to his (thankfully, pre-verbal) baby, follows that punch line with “And both those men are probably Jews.”

The joke has served as a comedians’ in-joke and in the movie serves as a way to unite comedians from Phyllis Diller to Andy Dick, from Don Rickles to Jon Stewart, from Bob Saget to Sarah Silverman.

Saget’s telling of the joke, incidentally, is one of the movie’s dirtiest. Southern New Hampshire’s own Silverman doesn’t tell the joke so much as riff on it, using her girlie innocence to make her fantastically dirty improv even filthier. The joke allows the comedians to stretch, to use their skills (with Reiser it’s his earnest delivery, with Gottfried it’s his squinchy-faced braying, with Billy the Mime it’s, well, everything) to best sell the joke. And selling the joke, delivering it without laughing, without falling apart, is what makes it such a gem. Jason Alexander tells the joke with another comedian — with each man building on each other but not wanting to lose the joint rhythm.

For all the talk of bodily fluids, all the use of four letter words, The Aristocrats is ultimately about comedians and the strange brotherhood among people who stand so naked in front of large groups of paying, drunken club-goers and try to make them laugh.